McKay, Don: The Shell of the Tortoise

Courtesy of Gaspereau Press

Courtesy of Gaspereau

McKay, Don
The Shell of the Tortoise
Gaspereau Press, 2011
Softcover, 149 pages

Review by:  Kerry Riley

My life, as far as I understand these things, is very much like that of countless others of my late boomer generation, in the western world, in the opening decades of the 21st century. For the most part, it unspools in a repetitive sequence of familiar, quotidian banalities — work, sleep, laundry, and etc.  And, for the most part, I exist unquestioningly and certainly, within these confines.  From time to time, however, without warning or explanation, and often in the midst of some extreme of ordinariness, I will be suddenly struck, as if by stray voltage, by the inchoate strangeness of it all, the complete and utter absurdity of the details of existence. Folding socks, I am suddenly forced to consider why on earth, out of the myriad possibilities available to it, the universe should have conspired to fashion socks at all, and why the infinite energy of the cosmos should have arranged itself just so, in just this moment.  It’s a small step from this to an encounter with the monumental improbability of one’s own existence, and the teetering tower of unlikelihoods upon which it rests. In no time, one’s usual frame of reference has disintegrated, leaving one anchorless in the space-time continuum. At this point, as a good friend once described it, “I have to tell  the ‘I’ that’s me to stop thinking about me, because the gears of my brain are beginning to spin.”  I have nicknamed this experience “existential vertigo,” in recognition of its disorienting effect.

As one might well imagine, my periodic attempts to articulate this sensation to those around me is met, at best, with bemused incomprehension.  It was, therefore, with a mixture of relief, gratitude and the thrill of connection that I encountered what I believe to be a minor variation on the idea of existential vertigo in Canadian poet and man of letters, Don McKay’s fascinating book, The Shell of the Tortoise. It would, of course, be more accurate to say that “existential vertigo” may be a minor variation on McKay’s ideas of the “defamiliarization” that results from encounters with “deep time,” as he has developed the concept far more thoughtfully, articulately and comprehensively than I.

Sharing the fate of most Canadian poets, Don McKay is well-known in literary circles, but hardly a household name. His academic career included a doctorate from Swansea University College, in Wales, where he studied the poetry of Dylan Thomas, followed by teaching stints at the University of Western Ontario, and later the University of New Brunswick, where he also served as editor of The Fiddlehead.  He is a co-founder (with Stan Dragland) of Brick Books, a publisher of Canadian poetry. A member of the Order of Canada, McKay won the Governor General’s Award for poetry for his collection Night Field, in 1991, an accomplishment he repeated in 2000 for Another Gravity, after having retired from teaching in 1996. In 2007 he won the Griffin Poetry Prize for Strike/Slip, the same year he took up residence in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His most recent poetry collection, Paradoxides was published in 2012. An avid amateur birder, and geologist, McKay’s work is noted for its close scrutiny of the natural world, and meditation upon the essential otherness of the wilderness.

The Shell of the Tortoise consists of four essays and an “assemblage,” a collection of McKay’s responses to his time spent in the pristine Muskwa-Kechika wilderness in northern British Columbia.  The first essay, “Ediacaran and Anthropocene: Poetry as Reader of Deep Time,” provides an entertaining explication of his ideas about the necessary role of poetic imagination in the sciences. A capacity for astonishment, he says, is a faculty shared by poets and groundbreaking scientists alike, and provides a point of intersection between the arts and sciences, between mysticism and materialism, two traditional solitudes whose estrangement “has not served us well, nor the planet we inhabit with so little reverence or grace.” The geological period known as the Ediacaran, (beginning roughly 575 million years ago) is notable for being the newest addition to our geological time scale, and for being the chronological home to the planet’s oldest multicellular organisms.  Although the period is named after an area in Australia where the first fossils were found, McKay derives his inspiration from a far superior Ediacaran fossil bed on the southern end of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. An encounter with these fossils, he notes, forces a stretch in one’s perception sufficient to encompass the realities of their existence so many eons ago and all that has come between. In the passage which spoke so clearly to me and my experience of existential vertigo, McKay explains that,

That stretch is, I think, not only epistemological (having to do with knowing) but ontological [having to do with being]; it involves wonder at the manifold possibilities of being in general and these beings in particular (…) The poetic frame permits the possible (…) to be experienced as a power rather than a deficiency; it permits the imagination entry, finding wider resonances, leading us to contemplate further implications for ourselves. For although we are palpably here, our presence is no less a remote possibility in the long accident-ridden course of evolution than is that of the Charnia wardi and other Ediacarans embossed on the rock.

At the far other end of the time that measures life on Earth, is the Anthropocene era, which, as McKay explains, is the proposed but not yet official name for our times. The name recognizes that the defining characteristic of the period is the change wrought upon the Earth’s systems by just one species — ours.

Whatever the starting point, it is judged that the innovative technologies of anthropos — levelling forests, making cities, producing networks of roads, eliminating some species and domesticating others — have altered the workings of the planet’s cycles in a way analogous to an ice age or a collision with an asteroid.

Giving our time its own geological name, McKay feels, pulls us out of the safe and timeless bubble of the present, and forces us to locate ourselves in geological time — in other words, forces a destabilizing encounter with deep time and the accompanying humbling stretch in our perceptions. At a time when the effect of our species on the planet is felt to be worthy of its own geological place-name (the Anthropocene) this stretch seems more necessary than ever.

In “Great Flint Singing:  Reflections on Canadian Nature Poetries,” the second offering in the book, McKay takes a fascinating look at what happened to the Romantic, Wordsworthian approach to nature (which emigrated to Canada along with many of our ancestors) when confronted with the immensity of our wilderness.

There exists, McKay explains, deep within our human natures, a preverbal wildness which underpins all of creation, and which, under certain conditions of light or landscape, when the noise of everyday life is, for one reason or another, quieted, reveals itself to us, or perhaps more accurately, reverberates within us. As he so beautifully explains, (quoting  a poem, “The Height of Land,” by Duncan Campbell Scott) there is

a pristine other which addresses a companion “inarticulate part” in our species and affords our “strange being” (…) “one moment of release” such as it will not find within the covenants of time and language

The Romantics, of course, recognized weak emanations of this force in their gentle, pastoral landscapes, and called it the sublime (a la Edmund Burke), in which incarnation it lent a frisson or two to many a gothic novel. The challenge which faced new Canadians, and by extension, their poets, was to confront wilderness landscape on a Canadian scale with Romantic sensibilities honed to detect faint vibrations of the sublime.  As McKay notes,

It’s as though the thread of terror which lends to the sublime its tremolo and edge were jacked to full volume.

A small dose of this fundamental natural energy, McKay explains, allows one to experience the sublime; an overdose flirts with mental derangement. It was this overwhelming encounter with a force which exceeds and precedes language (and thus baffles the mind) McKay contends, that shaped our Canadian approach to nature and landscape, and thus our literature, and which also produced one of our first Canadian literary archetypes — the “bushed” woodsman — someone “overwhelmed by wilderness energy and made strange to human society.”  As he explains in a later essay,  “This energy discharge is dangerous the way all occurrences of wilderness are dangerous — not because it wishes us harm, but because it represents a potency beyond our control.” Contrary to Wordsworthian Romantics, who, as McKay explains, sought to subsume nature to human purpose, to use it as “rocket fuel for the spirit,” a respectful awareness of the danger implicit in wild energies on a scale confronted in the new land lies close to the surface of much of our best Canadian poetry.

These ideas provide (happily for me) an alternative to the “sinister wilderness,” and “garrison mentality,” approach to Canadian literature put forth by Northrop Frye and, later, Margaret Atwood, in her groundbreaking work, Survival. Written in the early 70’s,  Atwood’s ideas about the sense of victimhood experienced by European pioneers encountering a vast and ever-threatening wilderness, were, as she herself stressed, intended only as a starting point for a theory of Canadian literature, developed to fill a vacuum.  The problem with her ideas, for me, was that they did not match my personal experience. My great-grandparents were Susannah Moodie’s contemporaries, people whose purported reaction to Canadian “nature,” formed the basis of Frye’s and Atwood’s theories. The family was well-read and literarily minded and could not have escaped Wordsworth’s influence.  Furthermore, their experience of the Canadian wilderness was direct and intimate. My grandfather, in particular, was known for disappearing into the bush for months on end on various trapping and prospecting ventures.  In my childhood, my family still had a direct connection with pioneer experiences through the living memory of my father.   Ideas of a malevolence, or sinister intent, residing in the wilderness, if they existed, should surely have been transmitted to me, via my father, but nothing could be further from the truth. The dangers presented by the wilderness and its undeniable mystique, were acknowledged, certainly, the particular type of wiliness required to thrive therein, revered, but there was no sense of persecution or victimhood. As a child, the wilderness was presented to me as something to be actively sought out, and closely observed, and encounters with various wildlife (while never foolhardy) were regarded as a sort of wondrous, privileged glimpse into other worlds.

In a delightful and learned ramble, his love and extensive knowledge of the subject everywhere evident, McKay discusses a strain of Canadian poetry, from the phenomenologic poets (specific mention given to Archibald Lampman, Ethelwyn Wetherald (whose name, in my humble opinion, is a poem in itself) Marjorie Pickthall, John Steffler, Daphne Marlatt, Sue Sinclair, Stephanie Bolster, Brian Bartlett, Elizabeth Philips, Maureen Harris, Tim Bowling, Sid Marty, Peter Trower) which seeks to know its subjects through close observation and  “initiate[s] a slow-growing wonder wrought of many parts rather than peak moments and grand unifying themes such as one finds in English Romantic vision poems and American Transcendentalism.”  Considering the ever-present danger of overexposure to the elemental wilderness energies that Canada presented, this seems a prudent approach.  It is, McKay also points out, a very ecological approach to wilderness and one which, certainly, accords more happily with my own familial inclinations.

McKay has much more of interest to say about the evolution of  Canadian literature, providing fascinating connections between the early poets’ encounters with wilderness energy and the work of modern poet’s such as Dennis Lee, who surmises that a part of a uniquely Canadian ethos may be “‘a groping to reaffirm a classical European tradition which taught that reverence is more fully human than conquest or mastery'” and that “‘we are subject to sterner necessities than liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'”  Perhaps contrarily, I’d be happy with that identity.

In his final essay, from which the book gains its title, McKay develops the idea of the non-human energies underpinning existence, of which encounters with wilderness and deep time can afford us a glimpse, and existential vertigo is, perhaps a symptom. McKay reiterates the story of the lyre of Orpheus and how Hermes (a trickster god of transitional realms) in a flash of inspiration, fashioned this instrument of the poets from the shell of a tortoise.  We humans, in our pride, may believe we are playing the tortoise, domesticating nature to our uses, but, perhaps (oh, destabilizing, vertiginous thought!) the tortoise is playing us, its “primal otherness” speaking through the instrument.  In just this way, it may be that we have misconstrued our relation to language, that most domestic of human tools, and that through it we have constructed a conduit by which pre-human, pre-verbal energies can discharge.  As McKay points out, a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.  How else, though,  to explain the constant searching in poetry, the reaching, like the tendrils of lightning seeking its ground, from thing to expression, and the flashes of “inappellable” connection to be found therein?

At this point, something must be said about the book itself — and here I mean the book as a physical object.  Published by the ruggedly individualistic Gaspereau Press, it is a small, beautiful wonder in itself.  Although soft cover, it is a lovely soft cover — a warm, heavy caramel bond wrapper over a lustrous gilt-marbled cover.  My limited grasp of printing terminology* is rendering an explication of its loveliness elusive, but suffice to say, this book graces one’s shelves.

Don McKay’s work, has, for me, been an important find, and very much in the spirit with which this blog was conceived.  My encounter with The Shell of the Tortoise has left me with a notebook full of ideas to pursue, new poets to discover, and old favourites to reconsider.  Indubitably erudite, a serious academic, McKay’s prose, nevertheless, suffers from none of the inscrutability of much of current academic literary writing.  His skill as a poet lends clarity and simplicity to his prose, and he expresses very complex ideas with entertaining and accessible beauty.  And, since these intriguing ideas examine the very essence of Canadian poetry, they are a double joy to read.  There is much to learn here for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of our literature.


*Helpful as well as ruggedly individualistic, Gaspereau Press sends the following details re: the book’s construction:

The book is sewn and perfect bound and wrapped in a letterpress printed jacket.  Inside paper is Rolland Zephyr Book Antique Laid.  Cover paper is Mohawk Felt.

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